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Martin Michel: The furniture markets are changing

By MARTIN MICHEL Published: February 4, 2017 6:34 AM

In Ohio, foresters evaluate hardwood trees based on their potential for further growth, but also on their potential value for furniture. During a trip to Holmes County furniture retailers, I observed some changes in the species of wood appearing in furniture showrooms. It was obvious that walnut still was king of domestic woods and beech (a pallet wood) still was absent, but there were a few surprises.

The beautiful browns and cream colors of hickory have begun to appear in furniture showrooms and on hardwood floors. After a 20-year wait, the price of hickory timber also has begun to rise. It is no longer a pallet wood at $100 per thousand board feet, but on par with ash and yellow-poplar at $300 per thousand.

Soft maple is able to grow on our wetter soils of Midwest. In these areas, it is often attacked by an insect that bores in and leaves greenish-brown streak in parts of the creamy white sapwood. When this "wormy" maple is edged with dark-brown walnut on a table top, the result is beautiful and high-priced. Accordingly, the market price for wormy maple timber has made a modest increase.

During a recent conservation with a table manufacturer, I learned that one of his most commonly used woods was brown maple. Brown maple is soft maple without the worm holes, but with a brown stain applied. The furniture marketers learned that "soft" in the name of any wood led the consumers to look elsewhere, so the title "Brown Maple" was created. Predictably, the price of soft maple timber made another modest increase.

How do these changes in the showroom product affect the guy (me) looking at the trees? In the 1970s it was predicted that yellow-poplar timber would rise from one-half to double the value of red oak, but this never happened. Though woods do occasionally flip-flop in relative value, 40 years later the lesson for the forester still the same: don't predict the future, but instead grow straight and healthy trees. If I must thin out trees, I discriminate against traditionally low-value trees. Changing furniture markets is just one variable that continues to make hardwood timber management interesting and challenging.

Martin Michel is a local consulting forester.


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